We teach our daughters that they can be anything or do anything that they want. We give them affirmations like “Girl power” and “You can do it” so they grow up feeling strong and proud.
But while we are raising these powerful women, we should also be thinking about how to raise amazing gentlemen. To me, a gentleman is a man who is kind, honest, respectful, compassionate, humble and strong. A gentleman is confident, genuine and owns every part of who he is.
So how do we raise our sons to be gentlemen?
1. Give him a wide range of positive role models.
Show your son that there is not just one type of “man.” Some men have physical jobs, like firefighters and construction workers. Other men are teachers, writers, musicians, therapists, vet techs, hair stylists or stay-at-home dads.
Show him that it’s okay to be exactly the kind of man that you are—no matter what you look like or what your interests or talents are. There’s different ways to be masculine and be a man and they’re all great!
2. Lead by example.
What you say and what you do matters. It’s important for sons to see their mom and dad being strong and kicking ass at what they do, as well as being kind and sensitive to others.
If your son says something rude about other people—or if he hears it from someone else—it’s crucial to step in and say “That’s not how we treat people.” Correct any comments that marginalize a group, like “You throw like a girl” or “That’s so gay.”
How your son’s father (or father figure) treats women and talks about women is especially important. Your son will imitate what he is shown.
It’s up to you and your partner to show up daily for your son and teach him strong values and high standards. You got to walk the walk!
If you start early and do this consistently, your son will fall back on what you taught him, regardless of what his peers say or do.
3. Teach him to go after what he wants.
No matter what your son is good at or what he wants to do, teach him that he can do it—as long as he has the drive and commitment. Show him that there are no limits to what anyone (man or woman) can do when they focus and take action. Encourage him to be brave, take risks and get out of his comfort zone.
4. Show him the importance of helping others.
Make helping others a part of your son’s routine. Teach him that we’re all here to help each other, whether it’s by donating items or money to charity, volunteering our time, teaching someone a skill or just listening to a friend who needs support. Helping others and doing good will also make him feel good, boosting his sense of purpose and self-esteem.
5. Teach him to own his emotions.
We don’t see men crying often in our culture, and talking about feelings is sometimes regarded as a feminine trait. Let your son cry if he wants to and encourage him to feel his feelings and talk about them. All men feel vulnerable sometimes and strong other times. It’s all part of being an authentic person!
6. Let him play how he wants to play—as long as he isn’t hurting others.
The “boys will be boys” mentality can be detrimental, but so is not letting our boys be boys. If your son wants to roughhouse and play physically, that’s great—as long as it’s the appropriate time and place. You wouldn’t want your son to roughhouse in the middle of the grocery store, for example, or with a girl or boy who doesn’t want to.
If a playmate says “No,” “Stop,” or anything else that indicates that he or she doesn’t want to play that way, teach him to honor those words.
On the flipside, if your son wants to play with dolls or kitchen toys, encourage him. Ideally, our boys and girls would play with all different types of toys to learn about the world and develop skills and empathy. It’s very natural and common for young boys to play with these traditionally “feminine” toys.
One study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that like baby girls, baby boys were more willing to play with dolls than cars. It’s understandable that any child—male or female—would be drawn to a toy with a human face, rather than an inanimate object.
7. Have the tough conversations.
It may be tough to talk to your son about dating or sex, especially for a mom, but it’s important to have conversations about how to treat a partner, what a healthy relationship looks like and what to do if a relationship becomes abusive.
Let your son know that he can come to you if he’s having trouble in a relationship or has questions about dating. Let him know that he can trust you and that you’ll always give honest answers.
8. Make practicing gratitude a habit.
Encourage your son to regularly give thanks and appreciate everything he has in his life. The more this becomes a part of his routine, the more gratitude and peace he will feel—and the more he will reach out to help and inspire others.
Work gratitude into daily conversation or make it a pre-dinner ritual to talk about what you’re grateful for that day. And don’t underestimate the importance of teaching when to say “thank you” and how to write “thank you” notes.
9. Teach him what it means to be a team player.
Enjoying competition and wanting to win is great, but so is learning how to work with others, owning your mistakes and being gracious whether you win or lose. Teach your son that we all have different talents, and we can achieve great things when we work together and support each other. And no matter what, always have fun!
10. Tell him stories of our great leaders.
The best way to learn is through stories, and it’s important to share with your son the stories of our great leaders and all the men and women who worked hard for the rights of others. Children often don’t understand things like sexism or racism, so it’s important to teach them about history, what we’ve learned and and why it’s important to honor events like Black History Month and why we have Women’s Marches and not Men’s Marches.
I’m so proud of the gentlemen I’ve raised, and they surprise me every day with how amazing, thoughtful and driven they are. I feel confident in their ability to lead others and shape our future!